“Land Ferry” would move trucks across Nevada on wind-powered trains

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Nearly every state in the country is faced with the challenge of accommodating what is expected to be a major growth in freight and passenger traffic over the next several decades while meeting increasingly stringent energy efficiency and emission reduction targets. Many states’ transportation and freight mobility planning efforts are focusing on a mixture of highway and rail capital improvement projects. But only Nevada is seriously considering an outside-the-box idea that would truly combine the truck and train modes to move shipments across its northern high desert — while also offering a new, faster travel choice for passengers.

Explanatory graphic of the Steel Interstate concept, featuring artwork by J. Craig Thorpe. Image from
The Interstate 80 corridor across northern Nevada is one of the country’s busiest trucking routes, connecting California ports with many inland markets. Approximately 10 to 40 percent of the commercial traffic volume on the highway is truck traffic. Paralleling the Interstate are two parallel Union Pacific lines — the ex-Southern Pacific and the ex-Western Pacific — both of which also see a high volume of intermodal freight traffic going to and from California ports, and the former of which hosts Amtrak’s daily Chicago-Emeryville California Zephyr. UP does have three transloading facilities in Nevada along these lines, but for the most part, the decision of whether to use truck or train for the longer hauls that cross the state has already been made before the containers enter the state.

Tucked inside the Nevada Department of Transportation’s 154-page Draft Nevada State Freight Plan, released on July 1, towards the end under “Prototypes and Other Concepts,” lies a mention of a “Land Ferry” system being developed by planners and researchers at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV). This would entail the transfer of truck trailers, or even entire trucks, onto railcars at one end of the state and off at the other. Fast, frequent trains powered by overhead catenary, with all the electricity coming from wind farms in the state, would then ferry the containers and trucks from one end to the other. Each train would include at least one passenger car in which truck drivers could rest and recharge while moving across Nevada. Passengers would also be able to buy tickets to ride in these cars, though passenger service is not expected or even needed to be a profit center. 

This service would be made possible by upgrading one of the UP lines, both of which are now mostly single-track with passing sidings, into a triple-track electrified railroad. Using the existing railroad alignment would greatly reduce construction costs compared to grading an entirely new railroad. The state, likely with federal assistance, would pay for the upgrades. The Land Ferry trains would be interwoven with existing UP and Amtrak trains on the upgraded line without any loss in capacity or reliability to any user and UP would retain dispatching authority. The truck-to-Land Ferry transfer stations would be located at Fernley, NV (34 miles east of Reno on I-80) and Wells, NV (58.5 miles northwest of the Utah state line at West Wendover, NV), bypassing 307 miles of I-80 in between.

An economic assessment of the Land Ferry concept unveiled by UNLV within the past year indicates that the benefits of this project would outweigh its cost to taxpayers — its cost-benefit ratio is estimated at 1.7 (anything over 1 having a net benefit and anything under 1 having a net cost). Its quantifiable benefits would include savings in travel time, savings in truck operating costs, reduction in accidents, and reduced pavement maintenance costs. Dr. Alexander Paz, Associate Professor and Director of the Transportation Center at UNLV, tells Trains that the Land Ferry concept could be implemented in other corridors with comparable benefit/cost ratios. UNLV also submitted a research proposal to the Nevada DOT for a Land Ferry along the Interstate 11 corridor — currently under development to connect Las Vegas with Phoenix.

The assessment also determined that 100% wind energy would be the most economical of the choices available to power the trains, which included solar, geothermal, and several forms of diesel fuel. It would not add or take away any existing business along the I-80 corridor as it would merely move truck traffic temporarily onto trains. It is estimated to create over 45,000 construction jobs and over 300 permanent operating and maintenance jobs. Paz suggests that the Land Ferry could also be used as an inland port.

A section of Interstate 80 at the eastern end of Nevada. Photo by Ken Lund /
While the Nevada DOT says it has “significant interest” in the development of the Land Ferry concept, it is only included as almost a footnote in the Draft State Freight Plan as one possible alternative technology, the other one mentioned being the Hyperloop concept being pursued by Elon Musk. The core of the plan supports more traditional highway and freight rail investments. “Nevada has made it a matter of state policy to favor the development and testing of leading-edge technology,” the Draft Plan states, adding “cooperation between the public and private sector places the state in a position to become an early beneficiary of these systems.” Another step that will need to be taken for the Land Ferry plan to move forward is for it to achieve buy-in from Union Pacific, which it has yet to do. And the Land Ferry’s utility would increase greatly if it could be extended across state lines, perhaps in conjunction with projects sponsored by neighboring states (perhaps including California High Speed Rail).

The Land Ferry concept is closely aligned with the “Steel Interstate” idea championed by the North American Steel Interstate Coalition. The Coalition has gained endorsements from a variety of local and state-level passenger rail advocacy groups, but has yet to gain formal cooperation from any freight railroad. The Coalition is nevertheless very interested in promoting the Nevada Land Ferry as a test case for its favored approach. 

The Coalition encourages people (particularly Nevada citizens) who support the idea to submit formal comments on the Draft State Freight Plan before the deadline of close of business on Monday, August 15. It asks commenters to point out that the Land Ferry would be eligible for State Planning and Research funds, that a full-time Land Ferry manager would be assigned to the Project Management Office to coordinate stakeholders, and that if the project is successful, then the Nevada DOT could serve as a resource to other state DOTs interested in similar projects.

Those wishing to comment may email their comments to the Nevada DOT’s Bill Thompson, Freight Program Manager and Dan Anderson, Nevada Freight Plan Manager with consulting firm CH2M, and to copy and submit them via the Nevada Freight Plan Portal webform.

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